There is widespread agreement that children should not be undertaking regular and substantial caring responsibilities or unsuitable personal care tasks. Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that the person needing care has appropriate services and this should include help with parenting tasks. There is evidence, however, of large numbers of young carers. In the 2001 Census, 175,000 children and young people in the UK were identified as carers. The average age of young carers supported by projects in the UK is just 12 years.
Practitioners should be aware that young carers, having taken on roles beyond their years, can present as more mature than they really are. The impact of caring on the young person could be influenced by family circumstances, the age of the young carer, the amount and type of care given and, crucially, whether the cared-for person has adequate statutory or other sources of support. Becker and Dearden(1) offer an analysis of the number of hours spent caring by children of different ages. Findings indicate that 84% of young carers provide 1 to 19 hours of care per week, 9% provide 20 to 49 hours and 7% provide more than 50 hours.
Current legislation recognises that, while support must be offered to the cared-for person, young people may continue to play a caring role that can have a detrimental effect on them. Even when the care provided is adequate, children may be affected in other ways – for example, by feeling guilty about leaving their parent alone or worrying about their parent’s welfare or financial concerns.
The current national carers’ strategy identifies that young carers need:
● Recognition of their role.
● Information about support available.
● Support with caring tasks.
● Emotional support.
Some 35% of young carers are 16-17 years old. This group has needs that differ from those of younger carers, particularly in light of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 requirement to consider training, employment and leisure needs during assessment.
The policy guidance on carers refers to circumstances where it may be appropriate for carers aged 16 or 17 to take on aspects of the caring role – for example, when a parent is terminally ill. Such young carers should be properly supported to ensure caring is a positive experience for them. Practitioners will need to make carefully considered judgements about the caring tasks to be carried out by young people, but they should not include inappropriate personal care. The aim should be to empower parents and minimise the caring role of the young person in a way that is suitable for their age. The role of young carers should be acknowledged but not encouraged, and the views of young people should be taken into account.
Identification of young carers can be problematic. Many children live with family members with stigmatised conditions such as mental illness or drug and alcohol problems. In many cases, families fear what professional intervention may lead to if they are identified. Some families may also have concerns about the stigmatisation of being assessed under children’s legislation. If a young carer requests an assessment under the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, the local authority must carry out one. As a matter of good practice, however, and in line with Children Act 1989 guidance, the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families should be used as it provides for a more holistic assessment under the Children Act 1989. The policy guidance states that “the new obligation to consider a young carer’s wish to work or undertake education, training or leisure would still apply,” regardless of the legislation under which they were assessed.
Adult services, in addition to supporting disabled parents, have a key role in identifying young carers, as they will often be the first point of contact. At the point of assessing the cared-for person, adult services must ask whether the person they are assessing has children and, if they do, what impact they feel their disability has on them.
Many young carers have problems at school, including poor educational performance and difficulty fitting in with their peers. Although there has been a gradual decrease in absence from school among young carers since 1995, between 13% of those of primary school age and 27% of those of secondary school age are still experiencing some problems at school.
These issues highlight the importance of partnership working between adult and children’s services, voluntary sector, young carers’ services and education professionals. It is important that practitioners adopt a whole-family approach to the assessment of young carers, and joint working is vital for this to happen. Locally agreed protocols should support joint working and avoid disputes regarding assessment and/or financial responsibility. Although not a requirement, the appointment of a senior lead on young carers – with the authority to make decisions on any disputes – would facilitate seamless service provision.
Most support for identified young carers is funded through the local authority and provided by the voluntary sector. Available support includes:
● Breaks and activities.
● Evening clubs.
● Access to information and advice.
● Prevention work with families.
(1) Becker S and Dearden C (2004) Young Carers in the UK: the 2004 report, London:Carers UK
● Practice guide 5: Implementing the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004
● Resource guide 9: Working together to support disabled parents
● SCIE research briefing 11: The health and well-being of young carers
● The Children’s Society’s Young Carers Initiative
● Princess Royal Trust for Carers
● The Disabled Parents Network
● Parental Mental Health and Child Welfare Network
Research Abstracts: Young Carers